Five Principles of Teaching from Daniel Pirutinsky, IEOR’s new assistant teaching professor

daniel_pirutinsky

The Department of Industrial Engineering & Operations Research was pleased to welcome Daniel Pirutinsky as its new assistant teaching professor in Fall 2020. Daniel’s primary focus is to educate IEOR’s rapidly growing student population, and develop effective teaching techniques to help students succeed. He earned his PhD in Operations Research from Rutgers University in 2020.

Daniel grew up in the New York Metro Area in a Yeshivish community that was very insular and isolated from other cultures. While he spent more than twelve hours per day in studies, most of his education was religious in nature. He did have some math and history education, but it was heavily censored. While he can see the beauty of mathematics now, when he was young, he really disliked math, which he remembers mostly as memorization and frustrating moments.

Daniel had a suspicion that even though he didn’t like math in high school, that he might not have been given the best math education, so he decided to revisit the subject after realizing that operations research may be a career he would enjoy since he seemed to gravitate towards making processes more efficient in his first jobs and saw that mathematics was the key skill for an operations research analyst. A pivotal moment that changed his perspective on math was when he discovered an online lecture series with Herbert Gross from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which helped him see its beauty.

“The exciting, interesting part about mathematics is how it all logically fits together, the reasons why things are set up the way they are set up, how things follow, and the mathematical sophistication. That is when I realized this stuff is really, really cool.”

So he spent two years teaching himself mathematics. He thought it was very hard at first. At times he felt bored, frustrated, and sometimes even dumb and inadequate. Every mistake he made proved why he shouldn’t be doing this. He kept pushing like this, and it was at least a year before he felt more comfortable and enjoyed the work. He still feels inadequate sometimes, which makes him empathize with students who he knows must sometimes feel that way as well, especially when they are first starting out.

“That type of feeling is so natural because math is hard. There are so many ways to be wrong and one very, very specific way to be right. So it’s frustrating, scary and disheartening. But when you get it, and as you slowly push through it, it gets more exciting.”

So, having taught himself the fundamentals of mathematics, going on to earn a PhD in Operations Research, and now a teaching professor at Berkeley, how does Daniel now think about educating the next generation of students?

“In order to teach people, you have to see them as people. You have to actually engage their brain and not just see them as empty vessels that are waiting to be filled up. I don't think that is how people learn and that is definitely not how I learn. Sitting in lecture was probably the most frustrating thing I have ever done. It’s just someone talking at you. Have you ever learned when people talk at you? Your brain goes here, your brain goes there. It is really really difficult. Knowing that, I still do give lectures, but my philosophy is that we engage people’s brains.”

Daniel’s Five Principles of Teaching

Make it a story

“One of the ways is that we make it a story. People are not machines; they are not computers. Even if it is a really technical, rigorous subject, the best way to engage them is to engage the emotional part of their brain, and then they can start listening and hearing. One way is to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be a literal story, but something that gets them curious, excited, or a cliffhanger; when will the next thing drop? Regardless of whether they can absorb everything at the time it at least gets them interested in exploring it later.”

Surprise

“Another way to do that is to keep surprising people. If the lecture drones on, then people lose focus; if I say something different, I will engage them again. It’s not always easy to make everything completely fascinating all the time, especially for an entire course worth of lectures. Hopefully with practice, it becomes easier, with more of the moments where people can zone in.”

Humor

“Another way to engage people’s brains is with literal humor and dropping jokes. It doesn’t matter if they are funny. Tries can sometimes still be humorous, and it has the same effect of engaging the part of their brain that we want.”

Make it a performance

“Even using tone of voice can be effective. Teaching is like performing or improv. In a way it’s almost theater. One of the things that makes teaching exciting is seeing that engaging light bulb on people’s faces that is unexpected or breaks the rules.”

Rapid Switching

“Another strategy I call “rapid switching” between different levels of technicalities. Occasionally, I do have to show some math because it is a math class, but I often switch between the mathematical ideas and showing how to think about a problem intuitively.”